Yves here. This post by David Spencer attempts to understand the roots of overwork in advanced economies. Of course, there are many people who have to work brutally hard to make ends meet, but that’s not the conundrum that Specter focuses on. He is instead perplexed by the loss of leisure time across the spectrum of jobs. While his post a good conversation-started, but I think he misses a couple of culprits, at least in America.
The first is that this culture is no longer supportive of leisure. In the much-less-harried early 1990s, I had the peculiar experience of going from having a very intense job to being self employed. When I had a gig, I’d typically be in overdrive, but over time, I was making pretty much the same money as I was before, with a lot of downtime. Mind you, when you are in a slack period, you have not idea when the next project will show up, so it wasn’t as if it would have made sense to go loaf on a beach somewhere. I needed to be able to maintain the appearance to prospective clients that I was reasonably busy and be in a position to swing into action quickly if they had an assignment. Plus that level of uncertainty over income isn’t conducive to spending freely on leisure activities.
But it was hard to find people who could deal with this on/off lifestyle. I was at the gym one PM (and of course it was close to empty) and the man on the stair machine next to me started chatting me up. He travelled between the US and France and quickly diagnosed my problem: “You live in Manhattan. It would be easy to find someone in Paris to see for a two hour lunch when you were free.”
But even worse was that I had internalized the assumptions of the environments in which had worked, and my beliefs were pretty typical of New York City professionals: if you are successful, you are busy or insanely busy. Only losers have a lot of free time.
And even if you haven’t gotten imprinted with that mindset, there’s a second set of factors that encourage overinvestment in work: having a decent personal life is much harder than before. Gender relations are in flux, which means couples have to do a lot more exploration and negotiation than in the past. Children’s time is vastly more structured than in the past, putting more of a burden on parents to organize it and shuttle them about.
I recall reading a piece, perhaps ten years ago, saying it made perfect sense that people liked to work long hours. In a lot of jobs, you have an organized environment, what you do is important in some way (otherwise they would not be paying for you to show up) and in many white collar jobs, your colleagues are interesting. Work is orderly and predictable. Home life is billed in movies and on TV as being warm and snuggly, but real life is messy and often stressed. While family hopefully confers emotional bennies, for parents and even couples with no kids, you are met with demands and expectations when you come home. The limited amount of private time increases pressure to get things done: spend “quality time” with people who are important to you, handle personal administration, have fun, decompress. But with not enough time to do any of that well, personal time may be less rewarding than it ought to be, perversely feeding a retreat into work activities as a way of setting boundaries with people in one’s personal space who expect more than one might be able to give to them at that moment.
By David Spencer, Professor of Economics and Political Economy at University of Leeds. Cross posted from The Conversation
In a world of iPhones and drones, people are right to wonder why they are still working so hard. The past century saw huge technological advances and yet there hasn’t been a corresponding increase in leisure time: people are working as hard as ever.
The Easter break lasts for four days; couldn’t every weekend be like this?
Proponents of shorter work time have received two pieces of goods news recently. One is the announcement of a new law in France to prevent employees being required to read work emails out of office hours. The other is the decision in Sweden to experiment with a six-hour work day for some public sector workers.
These two proposals go against the grain in several respects. The French legislation challenges the prerogative of employers to require workers to be on call when not at work – it recognises that modern technology such as iPhones has extended work time, without additional pay, and seeks to protect and promote the “free time” of workers. The Swedish experiment challenges the norm of a 9-5 work day – it recognises the potential economic and social value of a shorter work day and is consistent with a broader movement to promote leisure time as a means to a higher standard of life.
But the two proposals are also relatively limited in scope. The French law only says that workers should not have to check their work emails after 6pm. There is a concern that workers could still feel pressurised to read emails out-of-hours and there is a question mark over whether the law will be enforceable in practice. The legislation also only covers a section of white collar workers, leaving the rest of the workforce unprotected. The Swedish experiment is limited only to public sector workers. There is no requirement on the private sector to experiment with shorter work time – the quest to deliver positive returns to shareholders is likely to mean that most private firms will continue with normal patterns of work time.
Experiments in shorter work time, however, have proved successful, suggesting that the private sector might benefit from their implementation. WK Kellog – of cereals fame – famously improved productivity at his plant by operating a six-hour work day. The economic benefits from shorter work time stem from workers being more refreshed and focused at work. Six productive hours can yield the same output as a full eight-hour work day.
Evidence shows that longer work hours make us less productive. The example of the Netherlands shows how shorter work time can be achieved without a reduction in productivity and in living standards. Longer work hours are also associated with poor health and higher mortality rates – we may be risking our lives by working longer.
As I have written before, the case for working less is ultimately about promoting a higher quality of life including a higher quality of work. It is about giving us more time to realise our creative potential in all kinds of activities; it is about achieving a life that uplifts us, rather than leaves us exhausted and frustrated.
But, given the benefits on offer, why are we not working less? Here are five reasons:
Employer power: The decline of unions coupled with a more flexible labour market (meaning less job security) have granted employers more power to maintain work hours that suit their own economic interests.
Consumerism: Workers are swayed by mass advertising and sophisticated marketing to demand more goods and services which in turn requires that they work more.
Inequality: Workers are more likely to enter into competitive forms of consumption and to feel more pressure to work longer where levels of inequality are high. Evidence shows that countries with higher inequality tend to have longer work hours.
Household debt: The build-up of household debt, especially in the US and the UK, has put added pressure on workers to work longer.
Technology: Gadgets such as iPhones and laptops have meant that workers can be at work even when commuting to work or at home.
Taken together, these points indicate that legislation to reduce work time is essential. Employers won’t voluntarily reduce work time, and workers remain unable or unwilling to opt for shorter work time themselves. We must gain the collective will to curb the time we spend at work.
Other countries can learn from the example of France and Sweden. But given the barriers to shorter work time, wider reforms will be needed if we are to ever achieve a four or three day working week.
The goal of working less may appear utopian. But the quality of our lives inside and outside work depends on its achievement.